By Jake Kornack
For many of us, a search for deeper meaning is an undercurrent in the journey of our lives.
Yet, we hobble this quest with a negative internal dialogue—replaying interactions, thinking about potential future events and subjecting ourselves to hypercritical analyses of every aspect of our lives.
Stressed out and unhappy, we surrender that search for higher meaning in exchange for just getting a paper done on time or securing a second date.
The omnipresent voice in our heads that endlessly scrutinizes every experience feels uncontrollable and seems to be an integral part of who we are.
Yet, Sam Harris, atheist and New York Times best-selling author who spoke in Portland last Thursday, thinks there is a way to find peace that doesn’t require us to drop to our knees and pray to the heavens to save us from ourselves.
Harris argues that the thousands of years of mysticism that characterize religion have produced a needless and often destructive entanglement that impedes an authentic search for happiness and deeper spiritual meaning.
Harris thinks that through a combination of mindfulness and reason, we can achieve not only saner and happier lives, but we can also discover that deeper meaning. In doing so, we can create a society free from the destructive, dogmatic views that so often result in meaningless violence against others.
Harris describes mindfulness as “a state of open, nonjudgmental and non-discursive attention to the contents of consciousness, whether pleasant or unpleasant.” Mindfulness, Harris states, is “a real tool for making some fundamental discoveries about the nature of the mind. One of these discoveries is that the nature of the self that we all carry around from day to day is an illusion.”
That is, the feeling that we are the voice in our head is nothing more than a clever trick perpetuated by our mind. While one might argue that our inner voice encourages us to reflect, that inner dialogue also reminds us to be angry at a friend, torments us by imbuing self-doubt and ultimately engineers our unhappiness and depression.
The problem, as Harris describes it, is not the thoughts themselves, but rather the habit of thinking without knowing that we are thinking.
“Is it really possible to stay angry for an entire hour?” Harris asked. To stay angry, we have to remind ourselves constantly why we are angry, and this repetitive thought is often inconsistent with both our short- and long-term aspirations.
Recognizing this phenomenon, Harris asserted that, to achieve some essence of deeper meaning, we must first tame that nagging voice in our heads.
“If you’re able to use mindfulness to simply witness the feeling of anger as it arises,” Harris said, “you’ll find that you won’t be able to be angry for more than a few moments at a time.”
Practicing mindfulness reveals the fleeting nature of feelings of unhappiness and self-doubt that too often riddle our lives. The inner voice that engages each of us in an emotional, judgmental internal dialogue from the moment we wake up until the moment we fall asleep is an illusion that results in the ongoing misery of millions of people.
“Meditation,” Harris says, “is a tool for cutting through that, for interrupting this continuous conversation we are having with ourselves.”
And hence, meditation can have far-reaching effects on our society at large, cultivating a sense of peace and turning down the volume on the inner voices of antipathy that we might otherwise empower.